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Reading the Hymns: God Moves In a Mysterious Way

December 23rd, 2013 | 6 min read

By Kevin White

Christmas is almost here, and I once again feel like writing about a hymn.  My hymn today is “God Moves in A Mysterious Way”, one of William Cowper’s contributions to the Olney Hymns. It is not, I admit, a very seasonal hymn. It does not bring straightforward tidings of comfort and joy, but a word to those facing suffering and grief. This hymn does not take up the mystery of the Incarnation, but rather the mystery of a loving Father who brings difficult gifts. I hope that for some it will prove to be seasonable.

Since I have written about a Cowper hymn before, I won’t much rehash my or Fred Sander’s account of his biography: William Cowper lived a tragically sorrowful life. At what should have been a triumphant moment in his career, he fell into a suicidal depression. For the rest of his life, he was plagued by years-long spells of depression and delusion. Some of his delusions were too horrifying to relate here. John Newton’s sermon at Cowper’s funeral gives a frank account, though it is, I repeat, a disturbing read.

Cowper wrote this particular hymn around the time of the onset of one of his relapses, the one that Newton mentions as beginning in 1773.  When he writes of dreadful clouds and “a frowning providence,” he describes the oncoming storm in his heart and mind. He speaks, in short, from the place of grievous experience.

While Cowper’s lyrics have a special significance for those who have experienced depression and other forms of mental illness, they also speak to the common experience of grief, fear, and suffering.

God moves in a mysterious way
His wonders to perform;
He plants His footsteps in the sea,
And rides upon the storm.

Cowper forthrightly sets the theme of the song: the mystery of God and His providence. We cannot see His reasoning or plans, even if something of His broader purpose has been revealed.

Cowper notably uses the imagery of the sea and of storms. The waves and perils of the sea are a common biblical theme. The psalmist describes his emotional turmoil by saying, “all your breakers and your waves have gone over me.” (Psalm 42:7) The song of Jonah contains a similar line (Jonah 2:3).

Psalm 107 uses nautical imagery in a different sense, of even more relevance to this hymn. Verses 23-32 describe some who sailed in ships on the sea, where they “saw the deeds of the Lord.” According to the psalm, God brought forth a storm (v. 25) that overwhelmed the sailors (v. 26). They called out to God for mercy (v. 28), and He calmed the storm (v. 29). Thus this stanza of the psalm repeats the theme of Psalm 107 of God bringing hardship to His people and then delivering them when they cry out to Him.

So Cowper, likely alluding to these and similar passages, depicts the mystery of God’s providence. The dangerous and uncontrollable sea is like solid ground beneath God’s feet. The mighty storms of the sea He rides like a chariot or a horse, controlling them for His ends.

Deep in unfathomable mines
Of never-failing skill,
He treasures up His bright designs,
And works His sovereign will.

This is a pithy summary of Job 28, where Job or the narrator (interpretations vary) describes the deep mines of the earth. There the skilled dig up gems and precious metals in places hidden from the sight of all creatures. Humans can dig that far, and reveal great treasures. “But where shall wisdom be found?’ (v. 12) Its vault is deeper than any mine, and it is a treasure greater than any gemstone or gold trinket.  “It is hidden from the eyes of all living and concealed from the birds of the air” (v. 21) The passage concludes by saying that it is God alone who knows where Wisdom is kept, so that “Behold, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom, and to turn away from evil is understanding.” (v. 28)

The wisdom in God’s “bright designs” is portrayed as a hidden treasure. Again God’s sovereign providence is linked with the mystery of God’s purposes.

Ye fearful saints, fresh courage take,
The clouds ye so much dread
Are big with mercy, and shall break
In blessings on your head.

Here Cowper calls for courage in the face of storm clouds. Like the waves of the sea, the storm-clouds of the sky are an apt image of the turmoil of the grieving heart. The inner feelings that accompany depression, anxiety, and other mental distresses can resemble the turmoil, dreadfulness, and unpredictability of storm clouds and sea billows. In fact, Newton referred to the onset of Cowper’s troubles, saying, “The next morning a violent storm overtook him.”

Cowper pulls an interesting trick with these images. He uses very ominous phrasings, but inverts their significance. The phrase, “big with” implies that the object is full to bursting, as an extension of the idiom “big with child.” When a storm cloud is “big with” something, you expend it to be something fierce and unpleasant. Likewise, few things are known to break pleasantly on one’s head. In particular, a cloud breaking implies that its storm has been suddenly and violently unleashed.

The dreadful cloud is full to bursting, and its storm will surely break on your head. But beyond the ominous outward appearances, there is mercy even in the thundercloud and blessings in the oncoming storm. The mercies and blessings may not be readily visible, but the eye that sees the divine goodness, as we shall see, is the eye that sees with faith.

This is where the context of Cowper’s suffering is vital. This is no saccharine promise of gaining your best life now.  [Warning, dissonantly hilarious video link.] It comes from a man who has known despair in its most irrational of depths, but still girds himself to trust in God’s good providence.

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust Him for His grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.

Cowper speaks directly. Trust in the God of grace, and do not judge the Lord by outward appearances. Here Cowper says no more than what Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 2:17-18:

For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.

The trusting heart can understand what cannot be seen. The breakers and waves may cover you. The fierce storm may break out on your head. It may feel as if God is frowning over you. These are all too visible to the eye. But the wisdom of the matter is, at present, hidden in God’s deep mines. It remains unseen, along with the divine smile, because it rest in the Eternal One.

His purposes will ripen fast,
Unfolding every hour;
The bud may have a bitter taste,
But sweet will be the flower.

Over the course of our lives, we may begin to perceive hints of God’s purposes in our difficult experiences. We might come to see present signs of God’s good purposes. And if not, we can be confident that God is not thwarted.  Sweetness can blossom forth, even from a bitter bud. And once we enter into the full flower of God’s eternal promises, no present earthly time frame will seem long.

Blind unbelief is sure to err,
And scan His work in vain:
God is His own interpreter,
And he will make it plain.

Now Cowper comes to the bottom line. His words about unbelief are not meant to be a slur on those who lack faith. Rather, it is to say that God’s purposes can only be perceived from the perspective of a well-formed faith. It is similar with human relationships. If things look bad, we will only believe, or even listen to, someone’s explanation if we are already inclined to trust them.

Cowper is, in essence, suggesting the posture of “faith seeking understanding.” Unless we begin with a posture of trust, informed by God’s public revelation in Scripture, we will not see the broader picture. It is for good reason that Jesus repeatedly said, “If you have ears to hear…” He likewise said of Peter’s confession of faith, “Flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.” (Matt. 16:17)

God will make His purposes plain. Faith will become sight. Every tear will be wiped away (Rev. 21:4), and blessings will no longer be mixed with pain. Until that day, only the eye opened by faith and trust will be able to see the blessings in the storm.

Kevin White